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From AJR,   April/May 2007  issue

Out on its Feet   

Online Exclusive The sad irrelevance of the White House Correspondents Association dinner


By Rem Rieder
Rem Rieder (rrieder@ajr.umd.edu) is AJR's editor and senior vice president.      

I was tempted by the invitation--for about 20 seconds.

A friend was calling with a last-minute invite to the White House Correspondents Association dinner. Someone important had dropped out, and I was being summoned from the bench.

Yes, that's the same White House Correspondents Association dinner I've written about over the years, basically saying it was an embarrassment to journalism and needed to be mothballed ASAP.

There were three reasons to accept: the guy doing the inviting and his wife would be excellent dinner company; attending would be an act of delectable hypocrisy; and I could have filed a dispatch from the front. (Turns out I didn't need to; David Carr of the New York Times did an excellent job skewering the thing.)

But I had plans I didn't want to break, so I politely declined.

I have two major objections to the dinner. The first is that it suggests a coziness between newsmakers and the people who cover them that just isn't healthy. It reinforces the notion that the big-time D.C. press is simply a cog in the Washington political establishment. Didn't we get enough of that from the Scooter Libby trial?

This isn't such a good idea in general. It's a particularly bad idea now. On the one hand, we have a press corps that was badly snookered in the run-up to the war in Iraq. On the other we have an administration with an unrivaled contempt for the news media.

Let's see: Party with them, or run like crazy? Doesn't sound like a tough call.

The other problem is the carnival aspect, the competition for the get, the parade of (sort of) celebs, the coveted after-party tickets. It's one thing to go all ga-ga over the real deal. It's another to hang with the second- and third-tier names. If you're going to swoon, swoon big.

The choice of Rich Little as emcee hammer for the dinner was particularly sad. You know the backstory: Last year the job went to Stephen Colbert, who eviscerated the Washington press corps (go figure). The scribes were not amused, but the video was a graveyard smash on YouTube.

Once bitten, the association retreated--about three decades. Who knew Rich Little was still on the active list? He does impressions of people the guy from "American Idol"--one of this year's big gets--never heard of. For that matter, Time.com's Ana Marie Cox, the original Wonkette, probably never heard of some of them.

When news broke that Little had gotten the nod, my first thought was: What, Cliff Arquette as Charlie Weaver was taken?

Certainly a safe pick--you knew Rick Little wouldn't hurt any feelings. But it's also a bright neon sign proclaiming the complete irrelevancy of this event.

Years ago there was a guy at the Philadelphia Inquirer who was known as a "standing eight count." The dinner is beyond that. It's out on its feet. This is a TKO, and not a love TKO.

So no need to call once again for its abolition. It's already gone. It just doesn't know it yet.